Windows Media Center to go mainstream in Vista

Windows XP Media Center Edition OS may not yet be the standard home entertainment hub that Microsoft Corp. hopes it will be, but analysts said that could all change once the company releases the next consumer client version of the Windows OS later this year.

Though Microsoft has not gone public about whether there will be a separate Media Center release for Windows Vista, it’s very likely Microsoft will eschew a separate edition in favor of building Media Center features directly into the edition of Vista that goes out on most consumer machines, said Matt Rosoff, analyst with Directions on Microsoft Inc.

“I’m very confident the standard consumer [version] of Vista will have Media Center built into it,” he said. “It’s just going to be a part of the OS.”

Rosoff is echoing what has been published in various reports, though a representative from Microsoft’s public relations firm Waggener Edstrom Inc. said Monday the company is not confirming how Media Center will be built into Vista, or if there will be a separate Media Center edition for Vista.

Michael Gartenberg, analyst with Jupiter Research, acknowledged that Microsoft itself may not be sure how it’s going to package Windows Media Center for Vista, which is expected to be available before the end of the year. Still, he expects the core features of Media Center, such as providing users access to television programming and digital media on the PC, to be included in the Vista release.

“Look for Media Center to be very much a part of the consumer Windows experience,” he said.

Windows XP Media Center Edition allows users to play digital music, cable television programming and movies on PCs while using a remote control and a user interface that is more like a consumer electronics device than a normal PC OS.

Microsoft last week at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas made a lot of noise about how Media Center PCs are beginning to catch on as a digital home entertainment hub.

During his keynote, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates quoted numbers from Current Analysis Inc. that 47.1 percent of the PCs sold at retail in the U.S. in December were running Windows XP Media Center Edition. He also demonstrated new multimedia capabilities of Vista that are similar to features in the current Media Center Edition, and launched new deals with Starz Entertainment Group LLC and The Directv Group Inc. to provide more cable programming and digital video content to Media Center users both on PCs and on handheld devices.

Even if the Current Analysis numbers on Media Center PC sales are accurate, Rosoff said that does not mean everyone who purchases a Media Center PC today is using it as a digital entertainment center in the living room. “Just because somebody has a Media Center operating system doesn’t mean they are using it to watch and record TV shows,” he said.

Still, Rosoff said that Microsoft expects that with Vista, there will be more widespread adoption of Windows PCs as more of a digital entertainment hub than just a place to store media files such as digital music and photos. And that, in turn, could inspire those Windows users who balked on upgrading to Windows XP to make the jump to Vista that much sooner.

“Microsoft’s saying, ‘If we can make home entertainment an easier thing to do from a Windows PC, we will spur consumer upgrades,’ ” he said. “With Vista they’re hoping [Media Center] becomes mainstream.”

Indeed, convergence of the PC and the traditional television set is going to be a major theme in 2006, Jupiter’s Gartenberg said. “This will be a very big trend in 2006 as people begin to hook up their PCs to their TV and get content from their PC over to the television,” he said.

This space could heat up more this week as Apple Computer Inc. holds its Macworld Expo in San Francisco. Apple, which revolutionized digital music with its iPod and iTunes products, surprisingly is lagging behind Microsoft with a digital television competitor to Windows Media Center.

“Right now when it comes to the integration of the TV and the PC Microsoft has a very big lead right now,” Gartenberg said.

Rumors are flying about what Apple will introduce this week, and a competitor to Windows Media Center PCs is on the list of possible announcements, according to analysts.

The convergence of television and computer technology certainly was a big theme at CES last week. In addition to Microsoft’s announcements, Internet services company Yahoo Inc. also unveiled a new service that allows digital media stored online through various Yahoo services to be played on televisions as well as PCs and handheld devices.

Not to be outdone, Google Inc. unveiled a new video download service and a new media player so customers could purchase and download content from Google’s Web site to be played on their PCs or on Sony Corp.’s PlayStation Portal devices.

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